Teaching peace in the battleground: Mindanao State University celebrates 57th year

Mindanao State University. (Photo: Riz P. Sunio)

(Reposted from: SunStar.  September 5, 2018)

MANY lives changed for the better when Mindanao State University (MSU) was born in September 1, 1961 in Marawi City. For 57 years, the university has survived many trials and continues live up to its mandate.

This brain child of the late Meranaw senator Domocao Alonto has grown into a system of several campuses and community high schools in many parts of Mindanao.

MSU alumni like me went to the Marawi campus fully aware that every so often, some conflicts happen there. Still, we strived, survived, and attained our hard-earned diplomas.

MSU’s first president was Dr. Antonio Isidro, former University of the Philippines vice chancellor for academic affairs. He created MSU’s charter and curriculum to closely resemble UP’s.

Furthermore, the first instructors of MSU were from Silliman University, UP, British Voluntary Service Overseas, Volunteers in Asia, Ford Foundation, Fulbright Foundation, Peace Corps, the USA, the Netherlands, and others.

Some of the exclusive features of MSU include the College of Law’s Shari’ah Center, where Law students earn Shari’ah units; the teaching of the history of Minsupala, and integrated peace education that teaches students to become peace advocates and mediate conflicts.

MSU used to have the cheapest tuition fee in the country at P85 per semester—regardless of how many units you load.

Poverty, conflict, and illiteracy-stricken Muslim Mindanao

Dr. Datumanong Sarangani, former MSU executive vice president, said that Muslims faced various issues such as underdevelopment and conflict. They were not educated nor were they “economically viable.”

Muslim communities suffered from little government attention and persistent political problems. Health conditions in Lanao were also rock-bottom.

Thus, MSU was established as a long-term solution to the “Mindanao problem.”

“MSU was established for the Muslim communities by providing their needs for education and development and to integrate them to the national body politics,” Dr. Sarangani said.

When MSU happened, it made education no longer beyond grasp.

“MSU democratized education. Even the poor now have access to it,” said Dr. Acram Latiph, director of MSU’s Institute of Peace and Development in Mindanao (IPDM).

Now, Meranaws have the highest literacy rate in Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, according to Dr. Latiph. Many families now have engineers, doctors, and lawyers.

The unique mandate

MSU was also established for the tri-people of Mindanao, Sulu, and Palawan (Minsupala) as a social laboratory for peace. In the campus, people from different ethno-religious backgrounds interact with each other.

Despite MSU’s location, around 60 to 70 percent of its students are non-Muslims, Dr. Latiph said. Many came from other parts of Mindanao and the country.

MSU dormitories have a policy that a room must have an equal distribution of Muslim and Christian occupants. Employment in MSU also follows the same ethnic balance.

Continually producing survivors

Dr. Sarangani said that he was also one of the first batch of graduates of MSU. He described MSU during his days to be a “no man’s land”—lots of grass, few buildings, no electricity, and insufficient water. Fogs in the campus would also last for up to six months.

“We literally burned the midnight oil, but we could not ask for more,” Dr. Sarangani said. “We study, sleep, and eat together with Christian roommates. It was the foundation of the ‘MSU mystique’.”

Dr. Latiph described MSUans as well-adept in scarcity, can live by their means, have the tenacity to pursue their goals in life, and are able to go through college with the bare minimum, making them able to focus in academics.

“One of the best thing about being an MSU student is becoming a survivor in the campus. If you survive in MSU, you can survive everywhere. You train not only your academic capabilities, but also how to deal with scarcity in life,” he added.

As of the present, MSU has produced around 150,000 graduates.

Surviving violence, conflict, and its ideologies

MSU has been able to survive the Marawi Siege. On the second day of the conflict, the administration evacuated the constituents of the university to MSU-Iligan Institute of Technology.

According to Dr. Latiph, MSU was a target of the Maute group, but the campus was secured and was able to expel members of the rebel group, thereby preventing the escalation of the conflict to the Institution’s grounds.

Dr. Sarangani clarified that there are small embers of conflicts in MSU, but these are only small student rivalries. Generally, the relationship of the Muslims and the Christians in MSU was fine.

MSU’s extension programs

Dr. Latiph, who grew up in Manila and finished his PhD in Economics in the Australian National University, once worked as a financial analyst in Makati.

However, he left Manila to teach in MSU. He said that he used to have more money but less fulfillment. Now, as a college professor, he jokingly said that he now has less money, but is much fulfilled.

The University is currently working on molding the youth to not engage in violence and extremist. The IPDM is also working on research, fieldwork, and extension programs to evaluate and assess the people’s sentiments about extremism in order to combat violence.

They have recently engaged with dialogues, psychological debriefing, and other projects in rural communities such as entrepreneurship, livelihood, and capability building.

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